Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Most people will by now be aware of the publication of a huge amount of 'secret information' on the wikileaks web-site.  Listening to Hillary Clinton describing it as an 'attack on the international community', I was reminded of the words of Lenin:

'It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed.'

The reaction of governments, especially western democratic governments, to the leaks has been one of universal condemnation. There seems to be some irony here.  America and Europe have been lecturing the rest of the world for some time now about freedom and democracy, extolling the values of free speech and  a free press.  And yet now the same governments are arguing, in effect, that there are some things it is better in a democracy for the people not to know.  Interesting.

I do not doubt the importance of secrecy and confidentiality in government.  The wikileaks affair does, however, illustrate something that I have been arguing for a long time now and this is that there is a huge difference between democracy and freedom.

Freedom, of course, means different things to different people.  If you are a young single mother living on crime and drug ridden housing estate, freedom is more likely to be about not getting mugged and your child not growing up a drug addict than it is about which distant politician happens to represent you in congress, parliament, or wherever.

If you live in a parliamentary democracy like the UK, for example, you have more chance of a good education and health care if you live in one part of the country to another.  Freedom from illness and freedom to vote are very different types of freedom.

Don't misunderstand me.  I am not saying that democracy is necessarily wrong just that it is not the same as freedom.  How much freedom you have once a government has been elected will depend on a variety of factors.  All governments limit freedom of speech, movement, and knowledge, doubtless with good reason.  The freedom most of us value, though, depends as much, if not more, on how much we earn, where we live, whether we can access adequate healthcare, and if our children can get a good education or even just an education.  Quite simply, democracy is a system for allowing a population some say in who governs them.  No more and no less.  It may or it may not lead to greater freedom.  Hitler, after all, was elected to power.

Why does this matter to Christians?  It matters because, I think, we are in grave danger as the Church of baptizing a system of government as though one system has more right to be called Christian than another.  We have done this in the past, of course.  When Constantine became a Christian and was, eventually, baptized a whole system of power was baptized with him.  We have had Popes who have been secular as well as religious rulers, Holy Roman Emperors, Kings governing by Divine right, classes of people claiming to be born to rule, and Presidents of the United States, all of whose power has been justified by reference to God.  Now we are doing the same with democracy.

By all means argue and campaign for democracy, but please let's stop acting as if it is a divinely sanctioned system of rule inherently superior to and more 'Christian' than all others.

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